The year of the flirt
Jean Simmons taunted and teased as Estella in David Lean's
Great Expectations, Peter Lennon was as smitten as every other schoolboy in the land. Fifty years
on, he finds her no less enticing.
The Guardian Friday Pages, November 12, 1999
When scornful Estella with her 'undiscussable ways' led young Pip up the dark,
dank staircase to Miss Havisham's nuptial tomb back in the 40s, every red
-blooded schoolboy in England experienced that delicious sense of helpless
happiness associated with being alone in the spooky dark with the British
cinema's most mischievous new young star, 16-year-old
Jean Simmons. If they were 'common boys with thick boots' they, like Pip, cursed their
coarse hands and resigned themselves to eternal unrequited love. Estella's
later offer of 'You may kiss me if you like,' healed no hearts it was the kiss
Until David Lean cast her as Miss Havisham's emissary of vengeance in his 1946
film version of
Great Expectations, still generally regarded as the finest Dickens adaptation in film history,
Simmons had been little more than someone's
younger sister in a handful of bit parts. Now she achieved European stardom:
two years later she was cast as Ophelia in Laurence
Olivier's Hamlet, and
worldwide fame was firmly hers.
'Playing Estella was great fun, I can tell you,' Simmons said from her home in
Los Angeles. 'The thing I did not realise, because I was so inexperienced, was
that I was working with a genius, David
Lean. I don't think any of us realised
it was going to be such a spectacular picture.'
Did she realise that the BFI members had voted it the fifth favourite film of
all time? 'Quite right too,' she said, in a distinctly undiscussable tone.
Did you find Lean a difficult director? 'With me and the boy, Anthony Wager,
he was very gentle. He seemed amused by us for some reason. It was a perfect
part for me; 16 is the age of flirtation.' And did she break the boy's heart?
'Oh no, no. But we liked each other. In fact, he saved my life on the film one
day. I had to go up and down those damn stairs so many times holding the candle
that I was tired late one evening and I kind of relaxed and let my arm drop.
Suddenly there were flames shooting up. My apron was on fire! Anthony just
rushed in and brushed it out. He was there before
anyone else could move. Really a great sense of timing. I often wonder what
happened to him. He may have just given up acting and gone into business.'
There is a weird coincidence here. At the end of Dickens's story, the grown-up
Pip (John Mills) has to rush in and beat out the flames engulfing Miss Havisham
(Martita Hunt). 'Of course! I never thought of that.'
Forty years later, Simmons accepted a rather tricky professional challenge.
She was offered the role of Miss Havisham in the 1988 version of
Great Expectations, directed for television by Kevin Connor. 'When they offered me the part, I
thought 'They must be out of their minds'. Then I started to read it again and
I thought, 'Yes, let's have a go!' And I had the guts to play Miss Havisham.'
So now it was her turn to whisper in Estella's ear: 'You
can break his heart!' 'I had to put Martita Hunt out of my head completely. She
was a very stylised, unique actress.'
But if Simmons could not exactly match the bird-of-prey malice of Hunt in
Great Expectations, she had already demonstrated, as the psychopathic Angel Face (directed by
Preminger in 1952), that her brand of mischief could have a distinctly lethal
She went on to work with some of the greatest talents in the film business and
starred in some of the finest films of the next two decades, including Olivier's
Hamlet and Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus; she had a
leading role in Kubrick's 1960
Spartacus and starred with Burt Lancaster in
Elmer Gantry, directed by her then husband Richard Brooks. She played Desiree to
Napoleon and Sarah Brown to his Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Her move to
the US in the
early 50s where she was married to Stewart Granger was reported then as an
ambitious career move. But in fact she was sold into a kind of slavery.
'I fully intended to come back and complete my contract with Rank,' she said.
'But they sold me to Howard Hughes. You are not allowed to do that now, you
can't just sell somebody's contract. But you could then. Gabriel Pascal (the
maverick producer who persuaded George Bernard Shaw to part with the film
rights to his plays) owned part of the contract. I met him afterwards and said:
'Gaby, why did you sell me?' and he said, 'To be honest, I needed the money'. I
just thought: 'Whoops! Well OK, there's not much you can do about that."
We all know that Hughes was a very peculiar man, so what was he like to work
with? 'I guess he had his idiosyncrasies, but I found him very nice he would
almost come into a room backwards, he was so shy.
I had to do four pictures for Hughes and then I was free. I have been free ever
since. I never signed a contract with a studio after. They were kind of
forgettable pictures hopefully.'
Did Powell direct you very closely in Black Narcissus? 'I was only 16. I was
browned up and had to do a temptress, crawling up Sabu's leg. I didn't quite
know what the hell I was doing. He just said: 'Do it on instinct.' But they had
stuck a ring in my nose and it was driving me crazy. Every time I smiled it
fell off. I was giggling half of the time.'
But despite being a giggler, Simmons has proper respect for her craft. This
became clear when I asked about her experience with Richard Burton in 1953's
The Robe, taken from a biblical bestseller. 'That was interesting.
It was after he had done Look Back in Anger. He didn't think movie-making was
very interesting or very good. He said, 'I can have hysterics like this or I
can do that' and indeed he could. But he kind of looked down on it. It is very
demanding, when you do things arse over backwards and out of context. He soon
changed his mind.'
So what is the trick for keeping in character in those circumstances? 'Just
total concentration. I remember my husband, Richard Brooks, didn't like having
visitors on the set.' Simmons divorced Granger in 1960 and married Brooks the
same year. He revived her career with some fine parts, notably as the betrayed
Elmer Gantry and in The Happy Ending, a 'women's picture' which won her an Oscar
nomination. 'I asked him why and he said, 'I always have to re-shoot the scene,
because you are performing for the
visitor over there when you should be doing it just for the camera.' It's true
that even if you think you are not doing it for the visitor you want to sort of
project it for those people behind the scenes.'
Lean and Howard Hughes weren't the only difficult people Simmons has worked
for. What of Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster notoriously difficult producers
and Stanley Kubrick? 'I don't know where all these rumours come from, ' she
said. 'I didn't find Kirk (producer and star of
Spartacus) difficult at all. He is a hard worker and expects the best of everybody else,
but he is just as tough on himself. I thought he was wonderful to work with.
And Stanley Kubrick was just like a shy, little boy on the set (he was then
just over 30). But he had already made Paths of Glory, which was brilliant.
Burt Lancaster (on Gantry) was wonderful to
work with. I think these stories get about because they expect the best, and
people who get criticised for not doing their job properly spread rumours.
Elmer Gantry with Richard was wonderful. We fell in love, of course, and he is my favourite
director. We divorced after 17 years but we remained good chums and spoke to
each other on the phone nearly every day until he died (in 1992).'
Simmons still works occasionally. She won't be at the London Film Festival
showing of the restored
Great Expectations at the NFT tomorrow as she is preparing to work on a new film with Ernest
Borgnine, directed by Delbert Mann (the veteran director best known for the
Oscar-winning Marty, also with Borgnine.) 'Just a gentle film about a widow and
a widower who find
each other,' she said.
I told her that I remembered 'in a very early film, The Way to the
little girl comes out and sings 'Let him go let him tarry/Let him sink or let
'Oh my God!' Jean Simmons shouted. 'It was me! Arms akimbo, singing, 'He
doesn't care for me/And I don't care for him!' Arms akimbo!'
It was a full minute before her fit of laughing subsided.
Great Expectations is showing at the NFT tomorrow at 4.15pm. It will also be screened on Carlton
Cinema on December 17 at 5pm.
© 1999 Guardian Newspapers Limited